Published online 11 June 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040607-8


Old dog learns new tricks

Mutt's memory feats aid studies of language development.

Rico has a 200-word vocabulary and a knack for learning new words.Rico has a 200-word vocabulary and a knack for learning new words.Image courtesy of Susanne Baus

AGerman border collie has surprised scientists with his 200-word vocabulary and uncanny knack for learning new words, shedding light on the evolution of language.

Nine-year-old Rico knows the names of each toy in his hundred-strong collection and can retrieve items called out to him with over 90% accuracy. He can also learn and remember the names of unfamiliar toys after just one encounter, putting him on a par with a three-year-old child.

The dog's magnificent memory shows that canines share some aspects of the language skill that evolved in humans, says Julia Fischer from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who reports her findings in Science1.

But canines' ability to comprehend speech can only have manifested itself after they were domesticated, some 15,000 years ago, and human speech is thought to have evolved 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. So Fischer's findings suggest that the ability to match novel words and items has evolved twice, first in humans and then in dogs.

Dog days

<mediar rid='m1'/>Fischer'steam put Rico to work in the laboratory, presenting him with seven familiar toys and one new item with an unfamiliar name. When asked to fetch the novel article, Rico made the correct choice seven times out of ten. He was also able to remember new names up to a month later. "I've never seen a collie like it," says Fischer.

Rico appreciates that unfamiliar words are likely to relate to unfamiliar items, says Fischer. Children use a similar rule to form rough and ready hypotheses about a new word's meaning. This allows them to learn a lot of words very quickly: from two years old, English-speaking kids learn up to ten words a day until they amass a total of around 60,000 by the time they are 18.

"Dog owners often boast about the communicative abilities of their pets and this study seems to vindicate them," says psychologist Paul Bloom from Yale University, Connecticut. Rico's ability to link unfamiliar words and items outstrips that of non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, who do not show this type of ability.

Puppy love

The collie's owners spotted his talent when the dog was a mere pup. At ten months old, Rico suffered a non-permanent shoulder injury. As he was unable to 'go walkies', his carers exercised and entertained Rico by teaching him to fetch novel items.

He later found fame on a German TV show where contestants were encouraged to bet on his abilities. It was there that researchers spotted his potential.

Whether Rico's accomplishments are the result of an exceptional mind or exceptional training is not known. But some of his talent may be down to good breeding: border collies are working dogs, evolutionarily selected to obey human instructions. 

  • References

    1. Kaminski, J.,Fischer, J.& Fischer, J.. Science, 304, 1682 - 1683, (2004).  | Article | ISI | ChemPort |